May 18, 2017 - CT Big Day - 191 species

The Raven Lunatics were back at it this year for another dedicated Big Day run in Connecticut. Patrick Dugan could not join us this year thanks to a poorly-timed illness that knocked him on his butt for several days, so Dave Provencher filled in to join Frank Gallo, Dave Tripp, Fran Zygmont and myself.

Our scouting coverage this year was better than most, if not our best year ever as far as hours in the field are concerned. We felt well-prepared as we awaited the arrival of the later breeders, a few of which were undoubtedly being held up by a prolonged period of unsettled weather and northerly winds. The weather seemed prime to break for the 17th. With no Eastern Wood-Pewees or Alder Flycatchers recorded on our route as of the 16th (and very few Willow Flys in yet), we reluctantly decided to wait until we confirmed the arrival of these birds before making our run at a new record. Unfortunately, this ended up being the wrong decision, at least as far as migrant passerines go. It turned out that the 17th was a great day to be in the field...I had many pockets of migrants while scouting on the morning of the 17th, and reports from across the state were equally fantastic. The late flycatchers were also present where they should have been on the 17th, so the gamble of going on that day would have paid off. We were hoping, and thinking, that there would still be many birds around on the 18th. But it didn't pan out that way!

We could hear many birds calling overhead at 11pm while gearing up. With essentially zero wind and temperatures quite warm, we knew it would be a wonderful night for listening.

The first sound we heard a few minutes before midnight was the hissing of a tire quickly losing air! We picked up a nail on the dirt road leading to our starting location in the CT River valley - not exactly the way you want to start! Like a NASCAR pit crew we executed a pretty efficient tire change, each of us rotating out from the job to listen for migrants and hoot up owls.

We were back on the road at 12:15am with an EASTERN SCREECH OWL calling and SWAINSON'S THRUSHES migrating overhead. Crisis averted. Next we would target marshes and grasslands further north. A pair of SORAS we scouted were right where they should be, and we soon added goodies like HORNED LARK, UPLAND SANDPIPER, COMMON NIGHTHAWK and GRASSHOPPER SPARROW. We even got lucky and had an EASTERN MEADOWLARK give its buzz and chatter calls; this has become a tough breeding bird in CT and one that generally does not vocalize at night. A GRAY-CHEEKED THRUSH called overhead among several more Swainson's and Veeries.

Then we were off to the Northwest corner, bagging EASTERN WHIP-POOR-WILL en route. Litchfield County gave us AMERICAN BITTERN, VIRGINIA RAIL, BARRED OWL, both cuckoos, and a NORTHERN SAW-WHET OWL that finally started tooting just before dawn chorus began. Our first night session went about as well as we could have hoped.

Once first light hit, we began ticking landbirds like crazy. Quality "northern" breeders included PURPLE FINCH, RUFFED GROUSE, HERMIT THRUSH, RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH, and BLUE-HEADED VIREO. We continued into more southern-like habitat and recorded HOODED, CERULEAN, and PRAIRIE WARBLERS. A few birds were playing hard-to-get, most notably Hooded Merganser, which we would ultimately miss. It didn't take long to realize that migrants were going to be few and far between on this day; apparently we lost quite a bit overnight and we did not have many birds arrive. We heard the occasional BLACKPOLL WARBLER, and later we would run into migrant NORTHERN PARULA and a few YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLERS. A WHITE-WINGED SCOTER was a nice inland find while a WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW sang from across the street. As the morning progressed temperatures rose sharply into the 70s, 80s, and eventually 90s. It was a brutally hot day inland, especially for mid-May. I was almost shocked when a scouted GOLDEN-CROWNED KINGLET was singing his heart out on our arrival in the oppressive late morning heat; I figured we would miss that bird.

Our next 1-2 hours were pretty rough...definitely the slowest part of the day. We tried to tie up a few loose ends inland on our way to the coast. Some scouted migrants that were found the day before had departed overnight. We struggled but did tick off a few toughies, like COOPER'S HAWK and BROWN THRASHER.

Finally, we made it to the coast, where a new batch of birds was waiting for us. The tides were not ideal, so we had to do a bit of backtracking to make the timing work. This is not what we want to do on a big day, but we felt our hands were tied. Luckily the coastal scouting held up, and we had birds where we expected them. The wind, out of the southwest, was nicely cooling the shore, which felt a good 10-20 degrees cooler than inland. Ducks, loons, and shorebirds were right where they should have been. At Long Beach in Stratford we saw the continuing female KING EIDER and ICELAND GULL, and while searching for those a FORSTER'S TERN surprised us by flying by. And since we were adhering to ABA rules, which means no active or passive communication with the birding community, we unknowingly drove right past a Cattle Egret that spent the day in Stratford.

Hammonasset Beach State Park was good to us, as always. WHIMBREL was the best bird there, and we ticked a handful more species there like we usually do. Traffic was worse than usual, and that is part of the reason why we did not have enough time to look for every scouted bird along the coast. We had to make some difficult cuts. As dusk was approaching we jogged back inland and recorded RED-HEADED WOODPECKER and ACADIAN FLYCATCHER just in the nick of time. That left us with 191 birds as we entered our second night with very few high-yield options remaining. First we confirmed that White-eyed Vireos do not seem to sing at night. I had scouted a Ruddy Duck on a small roadside pond, but our attempts to spotlight that bird failed. We listened at a nearby marsh for Least Bittern, which had a history of being in the area, but we were unable to connect on that one too. Tried as we might, we could not pull out just one more bird to tie our 192 record.

Overall we were very pleased with the day. The northern breeders and coastal migrants really came through, as did the night-calling breeders and nocturnal migrants. However we lost some time late morning tracking down some birds in the heat, the tides forced us to backtrack which meant lost birding time, we got unlucky with a couple traffic jams, and we had hardly any migrant passerines to speak of. For instance, our warbler total was a paltry 22 species - ouch! Given those shortcomings, the potential for 200 remains real. It will take the right combination of scouting, weather, tides, and luck.

We are already looking forward to 2018. It's a shame we have to wait another year!

 - Nick


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